Muslim Brotherhood walks a tightrope in Egypt
June 11 2010
For half a decade political power in Egypt has tried to neutralise the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of the change of President next year. Some say, therefore, that it is against this backdrop of repression that the movement shows how it will enter Egypt’s legislative elections in November, and the presidential one next year.
“In spite of irregularities, the Parliamentary elections in 2005 were a success for the Muslim Brotherhood, which became the country’s largest opposition party with 88 of 454 MPs, Peter Hickey, a US-expat in Cairo explains.
“For the authorities the result meant that the people had an opposition block, and they were able to prove to the world that political pluralism exists in Egypt. At the same time, however, no real action could be carried out against the National Democratic Party (NDP) with 311 seats,” he adds.
The election result was also an explicit message to Africa and the West, that the Brotherhood was the only real alternative to power in Egypt.
But, not long after the result was out tension with those in power became visible and the regime began its crackdown on the Brotherhood’s leadership.
The Coptic population in Egypt was worried and by drawing parallels with Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon, it soon managed to convince Washington of the risk of an Islamic leadership in Egypt, if the next elections were completely free.
This suited the Neocons in Washington under the leadership of then-President George Bush, who after 9/11 had adopted a policy of democratisation of the Middle East.
“The US exerted its pressure by specifically targeting political leaders in Cairo, its major ally and beneficiary in the region after Israel and soon after, the Muslim Brotherhood was made theoretically illegal [constitutional law prohibits political parties that are founded on a religious base]”, an EU diplomat explained on condition of anonymity.
The repression against the movement that followed therefore went largely unnoticed by African and Western governments (5,000 arrests in 2009 alone). No-one was spared, especially not leaders. People such Issam al-Aryan and Abdel Moneim Abu el Futuh famously fell subject to grave accusations from Cairo. Members speak of how companies belonging to the Brotherhood were shut down, and assets frozen. It was fatal for an organisation based on charitable giving, academics have argued in several publications.
The assault also consisted of portraying the brotherhood as agents of instability and with links to Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, in spite of the differences between these movements, (one Shia, the other a rival to Hamas).
“Egyptian media were utilised to enhance the conspiracy theories and false accusations. It was a strategy aimed to prevent the organisation from normalising long-term. Together with the legal amendment to the constitution, and art 5 the movement was diabolised. These attacks have weakened the Brotherhood and increased existing tensions and personal feuds, rather seen it unite around a common strategy,” author and lecturer Sophie Pommier rightly argues.
“Sadly, it is the proponents of political participation from the 2005-election who have suffered the course of these events for the most part,” Ziad Hodroj, who belongs to the younger generation of supporters, explains.
“Issam al Aryan was the last of the ‘modernists’, but he was pushed to the sideline. Now it is the old school members who have the most say and they are generally more fundamental, which is not why my friends and I initially joined the Brotherhood. We are thinking of quitting,” Ziad adds.
Meanwhile, blogs in which young militants express radical ideas survive from neutrality not offered to other movements.
“It is all part of the package of suppression, Dr Karim Doueiry explained recently in one of his lectures on the subject of radical Islamic movements.
“The low visibility of more moderate players that are open to dialogue means that others much closer to the Salafist thought and its rigorous teachings have more leeway and with no feasible political perspectives, there is a great risk that they are radicalised,” he added.
In the public sphere the divide has been visible mostly through the wide spectrum of opinions and contradictory positions. Within days of one another, members have been seen to defend radically opposed ideas on topics such as the next President, the Nile Treaty and on relations with the international community.
The movement’s new leader, Mohammed Badie, is 67 years old and a student from the jails of Nasser where he was previously involved in the movement of radical Islamist Sayyid Qotb. It was a contested choice, which caused an international outcry when it was announced.
“The choice is the result of the ever-mounting pressure on the ‘party’ and a no-win situation. If Mr Badie decides to be high-profile in the run-up to the elections, his radical past from his time in jail will not help his image, the government will make sure of it”, argues local journalist Radwan Baassiri.
Everyone in Cairo knows that the big game for every political party of any substance now consists of presenting a presidential candidate ahead of the elections in 2011.
The candidate must have a minimum two years party-leadership experience, within a party with a minimum of five seats in Parliament.
Independent candidates may also stand (which would have to be the case for the Muslim Brotherhood, given that it is constitutionally banned from participating at the elections in any other way) provided they have at least 250 elected supporters, 64 of which must be MPs. To the great amusement of onlookers, one of the Brotherhood’s biggest opportunities is the women. By virtue of another recent law, 64 seats have been reserved for them in the next parliament.
“By vowing for their attention, the Brotherhood is thinking long-term, it is evident,” one of the party’s members said recently.
According to Dr Mohammed Morsy from the Muslim Brotherhood, political alliance with another party is currently not an option.
Either way, both analysts and human rights groups in Cairo expect the up-coming elections to be marked by more voting irregularities than previous ones, of which the Shura council election, where none of the Brotherhood’s 13 candidates won any seats, was considered a key indicator. “The elections were not representative of what happened on the ground. Official figures suggest the turn-out was 30 per cent, when in reality it was maybe three,” explains Dr Morsy.
“We knew the result would be forged, but if we had not participated, the forgery would not have been seen. We also have to show people that we are engaging in the democratic process of our country, that we continue to fight and that change is still possible,” he adds.
The reduction of proportional representation of the Brotherhood in the Assembly is a key political game and according to observers the authorities do not intend to compromise. Additional arrests are to be expected so that the only option left to the movement is to negotiate for the freeing of its members, the SPI wrote recently.
But there is still hope. News agencies have been reporting the Muslim Brotherhood as saying it will back the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei’s political change campaign. The meeting came as a surprise to many, but had in fact been planned for months.
“It is not a political alliance, but we are working together for legal change so that the government is unable to continue to violate the constitution and use of emergency laws,” Dr Horsy confirms.
The overall picture is that in spite of the internal differences, the Brotherhood is slowly re-uniting to be in the game for the long run. Internal unrest means they would risk losing the support amongst Egyptians, as well as internationally.
“We cannot afford that, as much as we like to think we can,” fears Dr Horsy confirms.